Essex Archaeological News, Spring 1973 (No 42)
Steven Bassett is the Director of Excavations for the recently formed Saffron Walden Excavation Committee, brought about as most excavation committees because of the development threat in this historic town.
Although the principal impact on the visitor to the town today, is the array of timbered houses of 15th and 16th century date, the layout of the town may well have been determined by a Saxon town plan; and behind the scenes there is a motte and bailey castle (the museum is in the bailey), and those enigmatic earth-works known as the Battle Ditches.
Steven’s work has partly been the excavation of the course of the perimeter earthwork. The Battle Ditches may well be a 13th century earthwork, but this is now thought to be a recut of an earlier boundary.
Excavation has shown what has been interpreted as a formidable palisade trench, the posts being 15 to 18 inches in diameter, and buried 8 to 10 feet deep below ground level. Such a palisade would have been of considerable height, and the mind boggles at the amount of timber involved in a one and a third mile perimeter.
Having recently seen photographs of a perfectly natural feature in chalk, which seemed to be a perfect example of a palisade trench, and was due to the cracking of chalk under ice age influence, I am inclined to be guarded about palisades. The position of the finds may settle all this, of course.
As if chalk were not difficult enough to work in the dry the sub soil elsewhere on site was brick earth.
Steven pays tribute to Paul Drury's work at Little Waltham, which will be a classic example of a brick earth site. The problem is that any back fill merges with the original subsoil, and features are just not discern-able. The only method of attack is to scrape the brick earth clean and leave it to weather. With time the differential damp content and soil colour, will show up the fill and the feature may be seen. There is nothing obvious about this form of archaeology.
The brick earth area at Saffron Walden proved to have exclusively prehistoric features. The earliest phase is a series of sub-rectangular and square, slot and posthole structures. The pottery associated is possibly late Neolithic.
The later phases are Possibly Iron Age, and fill has produced sherds similar to those from Little Waltham. One feature is a circular gulley of some 10m radius, and the second a 10m length of palisade ditch, in excess of 2m wide.
Work on the site continues.
There has been opportunity to examine the bailey ditch, this suggesting that the ditch was rather a quarry to provide spoil for the bank on the inner edge.
Clearly there is more to Saffron Walden, and in Steven Bassett’s care we are confident that a maximum of information will be extracted. Such care is essential since with such a varied series of occupation periods the history of the place is rich and confused.
Only Roman evidence seems to be scarce, although there are past reports of Romano-British burials. The proximity of Great Chesterford seems to make the possibility of any major settlement at Walden unlikely.